Nov 17, 2005

Bondage, Business, And Blood Debt: The Case For Slavery Reparations

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Given the number of white supremacist visitors to my blog recently, I decided to treat them with a reprint of this essay, which was originally published in the journal Bad Subjects.


I was soon put down under the decks, and there I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life; so that, with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat...I now wished for the last friend, death, to relieve me.
— Olaudah Equiano, recounting the Middle Passage

The destruction wrought by centuries of the human trafficking of native Africans is a historical legacy that cannot be denied, though some might minimize the plight of slaves, and others attempt to wash their hands of any guilt. Tens of millions of human souls were transported from their homes in Africa under appalling conditions to lives of servitude in the Americas.

However, neither the descendants of these slaves nor the societies from which enslaved Africans were expropriated have been compensated for the massive losses caused by the Atlantic slave trade. Even the short-lived "forty acres and a mule" edict issued by Union General Sherman in 1865 was quickly reversed by the actions of President Andrew Johnson. Irrespective of the amount of time that has passed since the official abolition of the slave trade, the debt incurred by slavers remains due and must be paid.

One of the most troubling questions with regard to slave reparations involves the difficulty in deciding on the beneficiaries of any proposed reparations. To simply offer cash to any person who can claim slave ancestors might produce some undesirable results. For example, should a Donald Trump or Bill Gates discover an enslaved ancestor in their respective family trees, would these oligarchs then be entitled to some form of reparation, or would their skin color preclude them from collecting any funds? What level of "whiteness" or "blackness," or what level of income, would be the dividing point between being eligible and not eligible? In addition, the potential for entrepreneurs to exploit the altruistic intentions of slave reparation legislation should could potentially be problematic, and should be evaluated.


The modern phenomena of Native American groups and their links to casinos comes to mind; big-money interests have aligned themselves with Amerindians in order to profit from government efforts to redress the wrongs of neo-European westward expansion in the 16th to 19th centuries. In downtown Detroit, for example, casino interests and representatives from seven tribes convinced the state of Michigan to create petite urban "reservations" for the sole purpose of erecting casinos. The Greektown casino, 90% of which is owned by the Sault Ste. Marie Chippewa Indians, is actually a converted warehouse, and total reservation real estate is a mere 75,000 square feet. While the Sault Chippewa derive financial benefit from their casino interests, one cannot help but question the efficacy of a system that simultaneously excludes other indigenous groups, such as the Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, who have been shut out from cashing in on casinos. Finally, can such a system of reparations, which largely draws its revenue from working class gamblers, really exact restitution from the groups that benefited from race-based exploitation?

The answer to this dilemma could be found in identifying particular groups and geographic locales that continue to suffer from the cumulative effects of centuries of slavery. Rather than trying to target deserving individuals, reparations should be extended to impoverished neighborhoods in predominately African-American, low-income urban areas and rural counties; the same could hold true for such communities throughout the Caribbean and Latin America. In addition, the African nations that occupy the regions most heavily devastated by the harvesting of humans in the 15th to 19th centuries could also be the beneficiaries of reparations.

Previous legislative attempts in the US to redress the centuries of forced labor have not been successful, as elite interests have repeatedly used race to divide the working class and generate grass-roots opposition to reparations proposals. Congress debated over nine bills in 1890 that sought - via federal pensions - to compensate former slaves, but this legislation failed to win sufficient support from Southern Democrats to become law. Activists attempted to use another avenue of redress, the United Nations, in a 1962 petition that sought to put international pressure on the US to pay slavery reparations. More recently, Massachusetts state Senator William Owens introduced legislation in 1989 that would compel the state to establish a reparations mechanism. Detroit Congressman John Conyers has attempted to use his position on the House Judiciary Committee to push for a federal study that will examine the issue of slave reparations, but his annual reintroduction has never cleared the Committee.

Equally difficult in the evaluation of the merits of such legislation is the determination of parties responsible for paying slavery reparations. Given the fact that the last nation to abolish slavery, Brazil, did so in 1888, there are no longer any living, culpable persons from whom damages could be demanded. Additionally, many of the corporations and organizations that facilitated the slave trade may no longer exist in a legally binding sense.

The solution lies in identifying those nations whose citizens and economies demonstrably profited from the trade. The coastal slave trader in what is now modern-day Benin eked out a living selling Africans into slavery, and the average senhor of a Brazilian engenho wrested a fairly comfortable lifestyle in comparison with that of his slaves, but the vast majority of the dividends of bondage were enjoyed by shareholders in such entities as the WIC (Dutch West India Company) and the French Compagnie des Indies, as well as the principals of international banking houses.


These corporations sought to meet the American demand for cheap labor, which Ira Berlin referred to as "the relentless engine of plantation agriculture." Researchers have identified a number of multinationals that have profited from (or purchased firms that profited from) the slave trade. Included among the modern benefactors of forced labor are Aetna, JP Morgan Chase, Lloyd's of London, and Fleet Boston.

Additionally, the western European nations most directly involved in the slave trade, along with the United States, should foot the vast majority of the bill for reparations, since the wealth of these nations has been derived, to a substantive extent, from the unpaid labor of millions of African slaves. Finally, the Vatican bears some financial responsibility for issuing this 15th century stamp of papal approval to the notion that slavery could be justified if it involved the prisoners of a "just war:"
We grant to you [Kings of Spain and Portugal] by these present documents with our Apostolic Authority, full and free permission to invade search out, capture, and subjugate the Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be, as well as their kingdoms, duchies, counties, principalities, and other property...and to reduce their persons into perpetual slavery.

The exact nature of any proposed reparations is yet another thorny issue that needs to be addressed. Rather than an over-simplified payment scheme to descendents of slaves, reparations should be directed towards both needy communities and socially desirable projects. For example, investments into the school systems and hospitals of predominately African areas would pay much greater long-term benefits than a lump-sum distribution to slave descendants. The financing of much-needed modernization projects, such as water systems, transportation networks, or electrification plans would also help citizens in underdeveloped African nations achieve a higher standard of living and, in some way, compensate for the forced removal of millions of productive Africans from regional economies over the previous five centuries.

The argument for reparations, fortunately, does not lack for historical evidence in its justification for belated action. The above image of the slave ship captures both the brutality of the institution and the economic foundations of the practice. The viewer must confront the appalling conditions into which human beings were herded and housed, as well as the forces of capitalist ideology that drove slave traders into committing and rationalizing acts of utter inhumanity. The narrative of former slave Thomas Hall illustrates this duality of cruelty and profit. Hall argued that the only purpose that slave owners would permit any form of slave matrimony was "to raise more slaves in the same sense and for the same purpose as stock raisers raise horses and mules, that is, for work." Slave women who proved particularly fertile had tremendous profit potential; Hall noted that such a woman would "bring a good price on the auction block."

The seeming incalculability of millions of stolen lives and billions of unpaid hours of labor must not preclude justice from achieving fruition. The nations of Western Europe and the United States owe a significant portion of their enormous wealth to the mostly nameless, faceless African souls who were sacrificed at the altar of capital; the debt of blood is still outstanding, and the passing of time does not somehow bring about a diachronic discharge of this due balance.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is a difficult issue. People alive today feel no responsbility for what happened, but how do you correct something that is in the past?

Anonymous said...

What else should I expect from a whiny liberal like historymike.

You are a complete discredit to your race.

Better hope we don't see you on December 10.

historymike said...

Well! Tell us how you really feel, anonymous.

1. I do not self-describe as a liberal, but feel free to use whatever term allows you to cool down. Perhaps I perform an important public service by allowing angry people a place to go, instead of beating their spouses, kicking their dogs, or chaining people to pickup trucks.

2. I am not even sure of what my "race" really is. I know that I have all sorts of European ethnicities in my heritage, and family lore suggests the possibility of some African and Native American heritage (one side of my family tends toward a darker complexion). Would I be a discredit to my European heritage, and if so, would that be northern, eastern, or western European? I have trouble keeping the whole racial hierarchy straight. Some of the white supremacists consider the Irish to be of a lower strata, and I know I have a lot of Irish in my family tree.

3. You will see me on December 10 with camera and tape recorder. I trust that our interaction will be cordial, if not exactly friendly. Let's keep it that way in the interim.

Lisa Renee said...

The problem I have with the concept of Reparations is if you go back into any groups history you will find in most cases at some point in history they were taken advantage of and abused by another class. The Vikings pillaged and took slaves in Britan, Women were captured and sold into slavery in Asia, as an example. Not only in Africa did they capture other tribes and sell them into slavery, but Indians did the same thing to other Indian tribes as well as whites, some of us have relatives that came here as indentured servants. The only difference from slavery being at some future point you would "earn" your freedom. In the west asians were treated much like slaves in many cases. The examples are endless...so where does this end?

Further would be the question of who should pay? The reality would be not just the former slave owner's families but those who sold the person into slavery in the first place. Those that transported the slaves here, those that profited from them. Then the largest problem of all in the Reparations scenario. Slavery was not illegal.

Personally I believe the quickest way to end racism is to stop making race an issue. What I find most ironic is the reality that even if you do not want to believe in Adam and Eve, life started from somewhere which means no matter the source whether it is God or some spark in the primordial ooze? We all started from the same original pair....God or no God? We are here because of an endless amount of begatting...

thus endth the Lisa rant...

Hooda Thunkit said...

Mike,

This is both interesting and thought provoking.

If we can identify those who profited from the slave trade, that would be the logical source for any potential reparations.

Less clear though, would be who is entitled to reparations. If reparations were offered, I suspect that people of every color of the rainbow would be standing in line with their hands out.

Who/Whom would you include or exclude?

And, on what basis or for what reasons?

The idea of a broad community based improvements designed to better the conditions and opportunities for all seems like the most logical approach to investing the reparations, rather than forking over the cash to be used for whatever.

That said, what about all of the other past injustices to other groups/peoples, whether real or imagined?

How do we make things right for them?

These are interesting concepts and ideas that certainly bear further careful consideration, especially from those who benefited/profited from the slave trade...

Some additional thoughts:

How does big tobacco fit in this picture?

What about the plantation owners and their heirs?

What about those mostly blacks that sold “their own” into slavery?

Because we sold out to the Amerindians, should we sell out to all that have similarly valid grievances?

Anonymous said...

At what point is someone financially culpable? Where is the line drawn? I can definitively prove that all 4 sets of my great-grandparents are "straight off the boat" from Poland where they were peasants. Would this not then "let me off the hook" and any special rate assessment,hike or tax etc. return me to a financial liabilty that I clearly should not have? Determining need also becomes sticky. While funneling money to assist needy communities/schools of primarily African descent is a good idea, what if there are whites in that neighborhood, will they be prohibited from receiving this money to benefit the community of which they are cleearly a part? Or will it become another Zimbabwae where whites were forcilbly removed and or killed? So many lines and no erasers.

liberal_dem said...

...or we all can sing songs to them, accompanied by the combined bands.

For our closing number we could sing the following to the tune of 'Bye, bye, Blackbird'

Pack up all your wares and clothes
feeling low here you go
Bye Bye yak turd!

Where somebody relates to me
booger meat so is she
Bye Bye yak turd!

No one seems to love or understand you
and all the racist venom that you spew
where somebody shines the light
You'll be driving home tonight
Bye yak turd!

Dariush said...

I agree with most of what Lisa Renee right up until the part about "making race an issue."

That's not quite how it is, Lisa. It very much is an issue, that touches a great deal of our lives -- especially in multiracial and multiethnic societies like this one.

It's been an issue since the first contact between the aboriginal American Indians and the arriving European settlers.


One thing I would like to add is that even in the antebellum South no more than a tiny minority of the white population actually owned slaves. How many folks are actually descendants of very wealthy, landowning white slavers? Not too many.

On the other hand, I do agree that something needs to be done. The debt does need to be repaid (perhaps not literally, or financially, but still...) and a proper understanding of what exactly slavery was and what it did to an entire group of people needs to be fostered.

Enough with the "let's just wash our hands of the whole thing and pretend it didn't happen" attitude or, the equally bad, "it was soooo long ago -- can't we just let bygones be bygones?"

ajax said...

as a white nationalist i will be the first one to aknowledge the slavery of the blackman within the united states lets open the history books honestly

it was a dark stain a very great sin ...but was the united states experience with slavery alone and unique in history?...read history a little bit and find out

remember when blacks were in bondage in the united states 1 million irish perished due to a series of potato famines and countless others died from famine pestilence and disease worldwide while blacks suffered ...6 million jews and others were murdered in their holocaust ...countless millions of people murdered under communist tryanny (where are their reparations?)

of course the slavery of blacks was wrong ...but what kind of a world does the human family live in? ...war,war, war oppression, kingdom, empire,rape pillage etc etc etc

the reparations that i would approve of would be an amount of money to be determined along with a one way ticket back to the homeland continent the blacks were taken from (after all they want to call themselves african americans and so many of them hate the united states and feel no loyalty to this nation other than the nation of their race)

because you see what the left and the self hating guilt ridden white crowd as well as blacks themselves fail to comprehend is that it was through slavery and only slavery that blacks would make up the numbers within the united states that they do today and as a nation within a nation they enjoy a standard of life their fellow countrymen of their origin could never dream possible

this slave history was necessary it was necessary to the whites who were unable to restrain themselves from taking slaves as a spoil and plundering the african continent of its resources ....it was necessary for american blacks living today because one day their ancesters would give them birth and they would be partakers of this mighty prosperous nation within the united states

how many blacks living within the united states have any desire to live in any of the black african nations? how many of them feel any real identification any real kinship ....and if they do visit any black african nation how many dont feel extreme gratitude that they were born in the united states (with all of its shortcomigs they are so quick to point out) and not in any black african nation upon their return?

in the end reparations for the decendents of black african slaves is meaningless ...it won't do anything to cure the hate so many of them feel toward whites.... any amount given to them by the federal government or payments they are able to extort from companies will be received with very little to no gratitude by their hand .....slavery and its history is something that blacks have to deal with themselves

if blacks were wise they would study the period from their emancipation up to the beginning of the civil rights movement ...if they did so they would learn secrets of survival (their forefathers walked in and prospered therein) that their race pimp master overloards refuse to teach them today ...they would learn things that bill cosby would wish they were taught in the failed government schools they attend ...they would learn to become self sufficient and unchain their slave dependency upon uncle sam's social welfare affirmative action agenda ...they would stand proud and indeed desire to be judged on character instead of hiding behind their skin color as some kind of immunity from judgment barrier ...they would end the 'racism' victim game they learn to play from their youth and would stop killing each other as they do so frequently when they are young and would learn be one another's brother

Chris Laurel said...

"Low brow, high stakes, crack smoke, black folks...."

I was always against Slavery Reparations. The mere execution of paying them out boggles contemplation. Do I think African-Americans as a class deserve them, though? Yes. Without doubt. We have continually beat that community down. They know we know this. We laugh at Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle because we know they are right. "It's funny, because it's true." But once we turn off the TV or leave the theater, we go back to the status quo, the Prozac, the lifetime of unending therapy sessions we need to help us deal with the fact our society is rotting from the inside out. It's not just our leaders; it's the people who elect them.


It's not just our leaders who barely debate the merits of destroying and rebuilding an entire country, but almost immediately debate the merits of rebuilding one of our own [black] cities? One of the most unique and culturally relevant places we have in this country? It shocks me. I question if this is the kind of society that listens to our forefathers anymore, or if we just listen to their words spun into lies. What has become of us? Do people ask themselves questions like this anymore? $1 billion dollars a day, and most of those fighting and dying are minorities, too. Go figure the white guys running the war never served themselves yet can question everyone else's patriotism. The hypocrisy is breathtaking. And we impeached Clinton over personal indiscretions, ones many of us in our own society are guilty? Remember the conservatives decrying "Travelgate?" That was cronyism and a scandal, and now look at those same individuals. Go figure - Republicans have the same human failings as Democrats. The difference is in the hypocrites who brandish their morality like a weapon at anyone who disagrees with them, or points out their unprincipled actions. It wouldn't frustrate so much if it didn't work. But the American public, in its decay, has suckled up to the hypocrites' teat, hearing what they want to hear, never caring the words rarely translate into principled action.


"Oh, but that's because Things Are Different." No they're not. They never are. I only see history repeating itself.

And we do nothing. We have turned our backs on blacks' problems and we have never kept our word to them. When we finally, reluctantly, started to accept them we said, "Go out there, be equal and good luck." Although we do not want to give them affirmative action or special consideration, or anything more than what everyone else gets in our Darwinian society. Then we wonder why one of their deepest poets was a drug dealer and gangster.


It's because they remember slavery. They remember hundreds of their children and men beaten or hung in the streets of New York City as the Civil War broke out, blamed for wanting their freedom. Isn't that heartbreaking? Even in this city. They remember "40 acres and a mule" which, had we fulfilled that promise, maybe their community would not be in the dire straits it finds itself in today. Instead we freed them, gave them Black Codes, Jim Crow, segregation and ghettoization. Holy Robert Moses! Because of one lousy Supreme Court interpretation, the Bill of Rights was not applied to blacks nationally until the middle of the 20th Century. Barron v. Baltimore. And now the kinds of guys who voted against applying the Bill of Rights nationally will be handing down decisions on our Supreme Court. And I'm not supposed to be frightened? I'm not supposed to yell out about this stuff in class when I hear it?!? Bullshit! A breach of decorum in defense of liberty is no vice, my friends. It's not even a partisan issue. We need to start looking and reading the roots of our country's founding, because it is obvious to me we've forgotten them.

http://accuracyblog.blogspot.com/

Roberto said...

Hi historymike,

From one historian to another take a gander at my site "The Silver People Chronicle," which chronicles the arrival and the lives of West Indian Blacks in the Panama Canal Zone- talk about slave reparations- here is one for just labor indemnifications alone. Even the AFL-CIO who came from the U.S. to support and protect the laborers and investigate complaints and were summarily banned (and expelled) from Panama.
http://thesilverpeoplechronicle.blogspot.com

Anonymous said...

This website is very informative and thought provoking.

I want to add that eyes are very deceiving and not all darkskins are african. A great deal of us are Indians which are Chactaw Indians which where some of the first people forced into assimilation by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Some of the corporations behind this Prudential and Hartford.
Do some serious research to be more specific about this slavery thing and who was effected by these acts of selfish, self serving individuals from other countries which include Africans during the civil war and Indians divisiveness because of government workers need to divide and conquer.
It time to tell the truth about the whole of all the immigrants which came on their own and those who came by ship as indentured and/or slaves by european campanies which today are fortune 500 corporations. These companies still hire there slaves as corporate slaves, ever wonder why certain people regardless of color get the high paid jobs? There are still on the lease, generations.
Even our public servants are corporate slaves and work solely for those big money making campanies.

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